Trans fat, transracial, Trans-Pacific Partnership, transgender – indeed, trans- is the prefix of the moment, if we take a look ‘across’ the headlines.

This hummingbird must live forever. "Nectar." Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle  by @andrescalo.
“Nectar.” Ballpoint and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


In Latin, trans was a preposition meaning “across,” “over,” or “beyond,” often prefixed onto other words, as evidenced in English’s translatetransitive, Transylvania, or transmogrify. It was assimilated in many other words, such as tradition, trajectory, trancetranquil, and travesty. But this simple and utilitarian preposition bears quite the etymological load.

Historical linguists root trans in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *terə-, “to cross over,” “pass through,” or “overcome.” This verb passed through Germanic passages to arrive at the English through and thorough as well as thrill and nostril. Old English had þýrel, a “bore” or “hole,” whose sense of penetration eventually yielded thrill – making nostril literally a nose thrill, or “nose hole.” *Terə- crossed over into Sanskrit, too, yielding avatar, naming a deity that has “crossed over,” or that has come down to earth incarnate.

We overcome difficulties – we come over them, cross over them, pass through them. Ancient Iranian took up this sense of *terə in *thraya, “to protect,” which Persian fashioned into saray, an “inn.” Caravansary and seraglio, among others, preserve these roots. The Latin trux, “savage” or “fierce,” may have had the force “to overcome,” eventually giving English something truculent. Something truncus may have been “overcome,” maimed like a limbless trunk or cut like trench.

Trans trans- 

Many humans ultimately wish to overcome the great ‘beyond’: death. The ancient Greek gods figured that one out – with the help of etymology, of course – with a little drink called νέκταρor nectar. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD)*nectar joins the PIE *nek-, “death,” and *terə, producing “to overcome death.”

Summer’s upon us. Better get those nectarines while they last. Unless they’re making a transcontinental or transoceanic transit – immortals eat local.

*Thanks to the AHD for help with many of the derivatives of *terə– that crossed over into English.

m ∫ r ∫ 

Dinosaurs, roofs, & togas: An etymological thug life

We’ve had a lot of big words in the news this week, as we’ve had a lot of big events. One word in particular grabbed headlines as a word, thug, thanks to Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s use of it in reaction to violence in her city this past week.

Thug is a very loaded word, to say the least. Thanks to some great commentary in the media outlets, we’ve also learned it is a very historically complicated, coded, and nuanced term, variously and nefariously applied through the centuries–to African Americans, union busters, and Indian assassins, whom the term originally names. Merriam Webster’s Kory Stamper weighed in on The Washington Post. Megan Garber reflected on The Atlantic. Ben Zimmer zoomed in back in 2013 at Newsweek. John McWhorter offers particularly incisive and insights on the word in an NPR interview, illustrating a key point that “black people saying ‘thug’ is not like white people saying ‘thug.'”

Since her statements, Baltimore’s mayor has walked back her words, stating they “don’t have thugs in Baltimore.” Etymologically, she she might be wrong, as the origin of thug may literally be present in the very name Baltimore.

Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white.  "Thug." Doodle by me.
Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white. “Thug.” Doodle by me.


Again, I will ultimately point you to the likes of Stamper, Zimmer, Garber, and McWhorter on the evolution of thug, but the Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word (often capitalized) in 1810, naming professional assassins in India who befriended travelers only to murder them, particularly by strangulation. The word is from the Hindi ṭhag and Mahrati (spoken in Western India) ṭhag or ṭhak, naming a “cheat” or “swindler.” We can see how the Thugs’ fundamental deception lends them their name.

Most etymologists stop here, as they are appropriately conservative, given the hypothetical, if methodical, nature of historical reconstruction. But others do speculate that this Hindi ṭhag may come from the Sanskrit sthagati, “he hides,” as Eric Partridge offers.

Under ‘cover’

The Sanskrit sthagati may be uncovered, if you will, from the Proto-Indo-European (s)teg-, “to cover.” This yielded Latin’s tegere“to cover,” which is behind integument (“covering”), protect (“cover up”), and detect (“uncover,and its derivative detective). A toga is also a kind of covering derived from this root. Roofs are coverings, hence tegula, “roof tile,” which gives us tile and Tyler, an English surname and given name for “tile-maker.” Speaking of English, the Germanic languages also took up (s)teg-giving English thatch and deck. The former was used especially of roofs. The latter bedecks those halls, too.

Roof tiles date back yet before antiquity: they are veritably Jurassic. The stegosaurus, or Greek for “roof lizard,” had armored back plates that resemble roof tiles, if the Greek στέγος (“roof”) is any measure when the creature was named in the 19th century.

No roof? No shelter. No house. This appears to be reflected in Celtic languages. Welsh has ty and Irish tech, both meaning “house.” Another Irish form for “house” is tigh or , which appear in Baile na Tighe Mór or Baile an Tí Mhóir, renderings for “townland of the big house,” a village in southern Ireland whose name you might recognize as Baltimore. (Apologies to my Irish-speaking readers for butchering any of these renderings.) The American city was named for the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland and whose family estate is that “big house” in that Irish town.

Etymology does it again—if in its full, tenuous, overwrought glory here at the Mashed Radish. But, of course, the real thugs in Baltimore, the real big house in the big house, that we need to reconsider aren’t the etymological ones.

m ∫ r ∫

Buddha, eBay, & ombudsmen

My wife and I will soon be wat-eyed and pad-tied on our upcoming trip to Cambodia and Thailand. In preparing for these trips, I consulted the cultural, the cartographic, the culinary, the commercial, the communicational–and, of main concern here at the Mashed Radish, the cognates.

Thailand predominantly practices Buddhism, as you probably well know. The religion is founded in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, later dubbed the Buddha when he achieved enlightenment. As is often cited, Buddha means “awakened” or “enlightened” in Sanskrit. Now, online auctions and official complaints sure sound like a far cry from spiritual knowledge, but their etymological connections prove pretty enlightening.

"Buddha." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Buddha.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


In Sanskrit, buddha (बुद्ध) means “awakened” and “enlightened,” formed from the verb budh, “to know” or “perceive.” Historical linguists root this verb in the Proto-Indo-European *bheudh-, “to pay attention” or “be observant,” as glossed by the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.

As inscrutable as Sanskrit can seem, buddha is linguistically reincarnate in some very familiar English friends: bid and bode. Now, bid is a busy word in English. The bid related to Buddha is not the one we see in the phrase bid farewell; this bid has a different origin. Rather, the bid at hand might be the bid you make by raising your hand at an auction or when playing your hand in a game of Spades.

Bid and bode

Originally meaning “to offer” or “to proclaim,” we can trace this bid to the Old English béodan, which we have early evidence for in Old English. The Germanic base of this béodan has meanings of “to stretch out” and “present,” which were extended to “to communicate” and “inform,” hence the evolution of the English sense of “offer” and “proclaim.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the past tense of béodanboden, created the Old English boda, a “messenger.” Boda delivered the verb bodian, producing today’s bode, as in it doesn’t bode well.  With bid we get forbid; bode, forebode. Both feature the complicated prefix forwhich means “against” in forbid but “ahead of” in forebode.


The Old English béodan yielded bydel, a “herald” or “messenger.” This word evolved into beadle, a minor church official or ceremonial mace-bearer. Another kind of official also shares a root with bid and Buddha: the ombudsman

In Swedish, an ombudsman was an official appointed by parliament to investigate complaints of governmental maladminstration (OED). Other European governments adopted the position–and the word–in the 20th century. The word was taken up more generally in organizations by the 1970s. Carrying the sense of “commission man” in Swedish, ombudsman is related to the Old Norse umboðsmaðrUm– around,” is connected to the prefix ambi, while maðr, “man,” is connected to “man.” The core of the word, boð, “order, command, offer,” is the cognate to our roots of interest here.

The enlightenment etymology affords us by no means helps us attain nirvana, but such a connection as unites Buddhabidbode, and ombudsman can feel pretty transcendent to this word nerd.

The Mashed Radish will be back at it in April. In the meantime, make a point to explore the official languages of Thailand and Cambodia. They are rich, complex, multilayered, and fascinating. Sanskrit and Pali have left quite the footprint in them, especially in terms of their vocabulary and scripts.

m ∫ r ∫ 

drubbing & shellacking

It’s an American pastime: The party of the president takes a big hit in the midterm elections and the electorate awaits how the president will describe it the next day. Most colorfully, in 2010 Obama described Democratic losses as a “shellacking,” while in 2006, Bush described his party’s as a “thumpin’.” And unlike Christmas, the word drubbing only comes once every two years, as pundits take to the bandwidth and column width for their analysis.

Whatever the characterization, its a now a tradition as American as apple pie, but two of those words, drubbing and shellacking, have travelled far–etymologically, that is–from grains of sand to the amber waves of grain.

"Gramophone." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Gramophone.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Today, a drubbing is primarily a metaphorical “beating,” but historically it referred to real blows dealt in punishment with a cudgel, especially on the soles of the feet, which is a form of corporal punishment known as the bastinado. I know midterms are referenda on incumbents, but jeez, thank goodness etymology isn’t a literal business. Except for poor old Senator Charles Sumner.

To my ears, drub sounds like Germanic stock, so, as we recently saw in the word candy, it’s a nice surprise that our best evidence points to an Arabic origin. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in Thomas Herbert’s 1634 travel writings, A Relation of Some Yeares Trauaile, Begunne Anno 1626. into Afrique and the Greater Asia.

Behind drub, according to this etymological route, is the Arabic ḑaraba, meaning much the same, “to beat,” especially “to bastinado,” yielding a verbal noun ḑarb, a “beating” or a “blow.” Turkish or North African variations, perhaps including a simple metathesis, may have utlimately yielded the English iteration.

Wiktionary, however, puts forth an alternative etymology. It suggests drub is from a Kentish dialectical form going back to the Old English drepan, “to strike,” from the Proto-Indo-European *dhrebh-, “to crush” or “grind to pieces.”


Shellacking, too, takes us to the Middle East, but it doesn’t just stop there.

Shellac is a compound of shell and lac, entering English as a 1713 translation of the French laque en écailles, “lac in thin plates.” Lac, related to lacquer and a variant, lake, is a dark-red resin secreted and encrusted on trees in India, among other locations, by a female bug, Kerria laccia.The resin was scraped from the tree bark and processed as a dye in the East. Later, it was dissolved in alcohol particularly for use in gramophone records and as a varnish in the West.

It is probably as a varnish that we get the sense of shellacking as a “beating.” Shellac was used as a finish for furniture and other woodcrafts, so to be shellacked was “to be finished” (and in a period of US slang, “wasted” or “plastered”). And so we can see its figurative leap.

Lac probably entered the West from the Persian lak or Arabic lakk, passed down from the Hindi lākh. The Hindi, in turn, is from the Sanskrit lākshā, ultimately meaning “red dye.” It could also name the insect or plant wherefrom the dye was obtained. So greatly do the insects number on the trees, apparently, that their swarm may have yielded a term for “100,000,” as in a Hindi lākh of rupees–a great number of rupees.  The connection between this term and lākshā is not certain, however.

The Sanskrit lākshā may have had an earlier form, rākshāwhich could point to a Proto-Indo-European *reg, “dye” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots). In Sanskrit, the root also plucked out raga, a kind of melodic basis for improvisation in Indian classical music. Rather synesthestically, the sense of color connected with “dye” was transferred to a notion of color and mood associated with sound.

In Greek, *reg- became associated with rugs or blankets, eventually giving English the rather useful term regolith: that loose layer of rock, soil, and dust covering on the surfaces of bodies. I’m sure the scientists who landed the Philae space probe on Comet 67P were very mindful of the regolith.

Rolling with the Punches

Shellacking is colorful term with a colorful root, but perhaps raga reminds us of the importance of sound here. The real power of shellacking and drubbing does not lie in their origins or histories. It’s in their sound: Drubbing and shellacking sound imitative and suggestive of the hits they deliver, yet they pack a punch without thrashing too hard. They are forceful without being final, giving the drubbed and shellacked a way to acknowledge they lost without losing face, as if getting up from the ground and dusting themselves off.

m ∫ r ∫ 


Today, millions of be-ghouled kids across North America will be facing the disappointment of “fun size” candy as they trick-or-treat for Halloween. While “fun size” may sour any ghost or goblin, candy makes for a quite the sweet and surprising etymology.

"Candy." Doodle & secret message by @andrescalo.
“Candy.” Doodle & secret message by @andrescalo.


Following in the tradition of the Romance languages, the earliest appearance of candy is in sugar-candy in 1390. From the French (sucre candi) and, previously, Latin (saccharum candi), we can unwrap the Arabic qand, “the crystallized juice of the sugar-cane” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). Passing through to Arabic from Persian, the word is connected to the Sanskrit khanda (“piece,” as in “piece of candy”), from the verb khand “to break.” (I think of small chunks of brittle as a visual reference, for whatever it’s worth.) The Online Etymology Dictionary proposes a Tamil root for “to harden.” Tamil, you may recall in my second post on “citrus,” is a Dravidian language, found in southern India and Sri Lanka.

Now that’s quite the Halloween haul.

Both sugar and cane also go back to the cradle of civilization, if you will, teaching us how ancient the “sweet-tooth” really is, to riff on Jordan Shipley’s commentary on these words. With both passing into English via the sturdy stock of French, Latin, and Greek, the former we can trace back to the Arabic sukkar (“sugar”), which has been connected to a Sanskrit word for “grit,” as in “ground-up,” like, well, grains of sugar. The historical phonology of sugar is quite ghoulish, however.

The latter, cane, is via a Semitic root, qanah, “reed,” which itself some link to the Sumerian gin, meaning the same. This root may also be part of the origin of caramel, along with the Indo-European root for “honey.” Canyoncanalcanister, cannon, and canon all, to various degrees, may be related to cane.

I know this holiday isn’t even over, but  I have to put out one yuletide decoration briefly: A candy cane may evoke Christmas, which, culturally speaking, is about as Christian and Western as it gets, but etymologically, we can see that candy cane comes from a whole different world. Now that’s quite the treat, isn’t?

Speaking of Arabic, ghoul is another Halloween-y word that ultimately haunts the Arabic-speaking world. First appearing in English in a 1786 translation of a French-language Gothic novel called Vathek, the word goes back to the Arabic ghul, referring to an “evil spirit” believed in Muslim countries to “rob graves and prey on corpses” (OED). The word is further rooted in a verb meaning “to seize.”

Seize away, ghoul, as long as you don’t steal my candy.

m ∫ r ∫


Ebola, Islamic State, European economic wobbles, public shootings, midterm election campaign advertisements–don’t panic, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Nor are we ever with panic, if we consider its etymology.

"Pants." Doodle by me.
“Pants.” Doodle by me.


Today, we might think of panic as a kind of fear, but originally it characterized fear: sudden, wild fear was called panic fear. In its earliest uses before 1586, panic directly described an association with the Greek god Pan, and it is indeed this self-same deity that so induced the English panic.

The word spread to English from the French panique, which started in the Greek πανικός (panikos), describing something “of or for Pan.” Even in Ancient Greek, though, this panic was associated with what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses as “groundless fear.”

See, “Pan was thought to frequent mountains, caves, and lonely places, and sounds heard or fears experienced in such places came to be attributed to him,” the OED states. In fact, etymologists like Ernest Klein consider πανικός a shortening of πανικός δείμα (panikos deima), or “fear caused by Pan.”

According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD), the idyllic, Ancient Greek region of Arcadia was the domain of Pan, a half-goat, half-man shepherd god and son of Hermes always seen with his syrinx (the eponymous pan pipes and source of the word syringe) and lagobolon (a stick used to strike hares). To the OED’s description, the OCD adds: “From the Hellenistic period onwards, Pan is the god responsible for sowing panic in the enemy, a sudden, unforeseeable fear.” I’d certainly panic, though, if I encountered a goat-man.

Atop Arcadian’s Mount Lykaion, a site of great religious and cultural significance, Pan’s name is attested as Πάονι (Paoni), “certainly derived from the root *pa(s), and means ‘guardian of the flocks’ (cf. Latin pascere)” (OCD).

The Proto-Indo-European *pa- means “to protect” or “feed,” and nourished quite a few important derivatives: the English foodfeed, and fodder; the French-based foray and fur, among others; and the Latin pastorpasture, and Romance root for “bread,” panis, source of companion and company.

Many of my sources, though, connect Pan to the Sanskrit Pusan, which Klein describes as a “Vedic god, guardian and multiplier of cattle and of human possessions.” Indeed, Skeat posits a connection to the Sanskrit pa, “to cherish” or “to nourish.” In this light, there seems to be little to panic about in panic.

An economic panic (like the Panic of 1837) is attested in 1757. If you recall my post on mongerpanicmonger goes back to 1845, I believe in reference to what became the Great Famine. Panic button is cited in 1948 from U.S. Air Force Slang: “a button or switch for operating a device in an emergency,” presumably some sort of alarm or eject button. Panic attack is properly attested in 1966, though the sense of it came earlier.

All in All

The ancients certainly weren’t deaf to puns. Pan’s name was associated with the Greek παν, meaning “all.” Due to this association,the Romans adapted Pan as Faunus (hence fauna), as “a universal god, the All” (OCD).

Today, we see pan as prefix: “Pan-American” or “pandemic,” for example. We also see it in panoply (Greek, “all arms,” referring to a full suit of armor), panacea (Greek, “all-healing”), and pandemonium (coined by John Milton as the the capital of hell). Pamphlet, too, contains pan: It comes from a Greek name, Pamphilos (Πάμϕιλος, “loved by all”). Rendered as Pamphilus in Latin, the name was used in a short, very popular, and widely circulated 12th-century amatory poem.

Some really see pan everywhere. Jordan Shipley sees it in the banjo, a “slave pronunciation” (OED) of bandore, a lute-like instrument rooted ultimately rooted in the Greek πανδοῦρα (pandoura). The Greek  refers a three-stringed instrument and also gives us the word mandolin. The banjo itself is from Africa.

Shipley also sees it in pants: Drawing on Klein’s work, “St. Pantaleone: all lion, a Roman physician (d. A.D. 305), became the old buffoon Pantaloon in commedia dell’artefrom his costume, pantaloons, shorted to pants…” San Pantaleone was a Venetian patron saint and Pantaleone became a popular male name.

I, for one, think Pan would have been way less scary had he a proper pair of pants.

 m ∫ r ∫


Ruble. Doodle by me.
Ruble. Doodle by me.

Some etymologies drive the point home perfectly–and others have a way of bringing it all together.

Such is the case with the word loot, which has surfaced–and I think in an insidiously racialized manner–amid the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Its origin, however, is far, far away from the American Midwest.


Loot derives from the Hindi lut, meaning “spoil,” “booty,” or “plunder,” and was taken into English as a result of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.

The word is first attested in 1788 in a glossary of Indian words–The Indian vocabulary: to which is prefixed the Forms of impeachment. It was designed to aid Englishmen in understanding native words used in the impeachment of a British governor, William Hastings, accused of corruption in his post in India.

It’s attested again in 1839 in the erstwhile British publication Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

The annals of the Pindarry war show how easily a marauding force, held together solely by the hope of spoil, is collected in India. The famous freebooting leader, Ameer Khan (lately dead), on being asked how he contrived to keep together the various tribes and religions found in the ranks of his motley followers, said that he always found the talismanic gathering-word ‘Loot’ (plunder), a sufficient bond of union in any part of India; and in those devastating hordes of cavalry, the Cossacks and Bashkirs would find a similarity not only in habits and pursues, but even in name, the term Cosak being in common use throughout the north of India to indicate a predatory horseman.

Putting aside the rather invidious characterization of indigenous populations, the passage describes one, Amir Khan, a Pathan freebooter in northern India who wielded control over an army of tribal mercenaries. Often commissioned by allies, he would sic his soldiers on enemies, securing their services through the promise of loot–the spoils of war. Khan eventually surrendered to British forces. And, as the author points out, Cossack should indeed evoke the horseback militiamen in southern Russia/Ukraine: They take their name from the Turkish kazak, “free man” or “wanderer.” Kazakhstan is cognate. But we’ll get back to Russia in a moment.


Another Anglo-Indian glossary–this one the famed, 1886 Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursivegives us a little more information on this lut.

According to it, the Hindi lut is taken from its parent language, the Sanskrit lotra, meaning “to rob.” A variant, loptra, is suggested, as well as the word lunt. Lotra, in turn, is from the Sanskrit root lup or rup, “to break.” Other colloquial terms included looty and lootiewallah for “plunderer.”

From here, historical linguistics point us back to the Proto-Indo-European *reup-, “to snatch.” And this root has been much in the news, so to speak.

A volcanic eruption appears imminent in Iceland and clashes are erupting in Africa over Ebola quarantines. Erupt is ultimately from the Latin rumpere (like lup/rup, “break,” “burst,” “split”), traced back to *reup-Interrupt, corrupt, and bankrupt, among others, are also so derived.  

Russian convoys in Ukraine have been disruptive (another example), to say the least. More sanctions were threatened to hurt their rubles. Indeed, ruble is also believed to be from *reup-, from a Slavic root for “hew” or “chop,” referring to the way specific amounts of currency were historically cut off from silver bars.

And many are still feeling bereaved over the death of Robin Williams. Bereave–and its base, reave–are from a Germanic iteration of *reup- for “rob.” Via a French borrowing, rob itself is derived from this as well.

Maybe all this makes you just want to surrender to your bathrobe. But you might want to rip that off, too. Like robrobe is French via the same Germanic root for rob, here referring to “clothes taken as booty.” And rip? Yep, that’s ultimately from *reup-, too.

Ah! What are we to do? Perhaps play with your dog Rover or sate your curiosity and marvel at the astonishing feat of the Mars Rover? Nope. It’s inescapable. Via a Dutch term for “sea-robber” or “pirate,” rover, cognate to reave, is also looted from that same Proto-Indo-European *reup-.

We got a lot of loot out of *reup-.

 m ∫ r ∫


For so many of us, a virus might spell the end of our computer–not our lives, as we are witnessing so tragically in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Sometimes a viral video is precisely what is needed to distract us from today’s feverish crises. Too often, though, a viral video may be distracting us from them.

But etymologies, I often feel, can bring us back down to earth–and quite literally so in the case of virus.


Originally referring to the “venom” of a snake in Middle English, virus is a Latin word, where it also named “venom” as well as “slime,” “stench,” and “poison.” An adjective form of the word, virulentus, or “poisonous,” provides us virulent. The pathological meaning of virus is attested in the first of the 18th century.

Etymologists like Eric Partridge offer an earlier Latin meaning of the “sap” or “juice” of a plant, especially a poisonous one. Sap can indeed be sticky, and hence the Romans spoke of viscum, “mistletoe,” whose berries yielded a sticky juice, which was spread on branches to trap birds–so-called “birdlime.”

Romantic, huh? The mistletoe tradition calls back Indo-European beliefs in the virility associated with the evergreen flora. Ironically, the tree’s berries are themselves virulent–well, poisonous–to humans. In its human designs, it spelled the end of many birds, many of which were actually depended on the plant for food.

From this viscum English has viscid and viscous.


As the American Heritage Dictionary diagnoses it, the Latin virus and its related forms are rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *weis-, which meant “to flow.” Other scholars, including Ernest Klein, specify the virulence of this particular effluvium as “to melt away” or “rot.”

Other derivatives of this *weis– may include a secondary meaning of ooze, referring to a “mire” or “mud,” from the Old English wase, recognizable certainly not in shape but in sound.

The other ooze–as in a grilled-cheese sandwich or pus–is traced to the Old English wos, meaning, perhaps like virus, “sap” or “juice.” Due to the close similarities in sound and sense, some etymologists take these words back to the same root meaning “wet.” The Ninja Turtles, though, certainly didn’t help uncover the etymological secret of ooze. 

From *weis-, Walter Skeat argues for wizen, “to shrivel” or “dry up,” living on in wizened. This probably from a different root meaning “to wither,” however.

Yet others propose weasel and bison, as well as the bison’s European cousin, the wisent. Apparently, this is from the fact that, as Jordan Shipley puts it, “some animals…smell, especially at rutting time.” Some cry foul at these derivations, though a Sanskrit cognate in meaning “musty-smelling” is interesting.

The Greek ios, Sanskrit visam, and Old Irish fi–all meaning “poison”–also derive from *weis-. 

Vulnerable Language

Virus indeed has an ancient root, but many of its uses are recent.

The Ebola virus was only first observed in 1976 in the Ebola river valley in the Congo. And David Gerrold is credited with one of the first uses of a computer virus in his 1972 science fiction novel When HARLIE Was One.

In today’s hectic information age, it’s easy to think that these kinds of things have been just always been around, so lodged these words are in our lexicon and consciousness.

But, more important, in our day-to-day motions, as we observe a crisis from a distance and try to understand an out-of-the-ordinary disease, it’s also easy to forget how truly devastating something like the Ebola virus. In its historical roots in senses of “stench,” “slime,” and “poison,” perhaps its etymology can make virus less abstract–and far more of the earth, our language reminders of vulnerability.

m ∫ r ∫

breakfast, lunch, & dinner

Fast Mash

  • Appearing in the 15th-century, beakfast joins break and fast, with the latter indeed related to its adjective form
  • Lunch is less clear; lunch is shortened from luncheon, which may be an extension of lunch, possibly from lump (compare bump and bunch); luncheon may have been formed on analogy to words like truncheon
  • In the 16th-century, a lunch was a “thick piece” or “hunk”; Spanish has lonja, meaning “slice”
  • Dinner is from French, dîner, earlier disner, which possibly goes back to Latin disjejunare, meaning to “break one’s fast”; Latin has jejunus, meaning “fasting,” giving English jejune and the anatomical jejunum 

There’s a small piece of my heart that is black and rotten–black and rotten because I am a mere monoglot. I hold a quiet grudge against the United States’ prevailing language-learning paradigm of monolingualism–at least for the dominant culture. Instead, I have to pop into another language like I’m visiting a 24-hour diner, ordering up a plate of huevos rancheros at some ungodly hour. And sure, I know my way around a couple of diners, and I know how diners work as such, but there’s no Norma serving me coffee and pie as soon as I walk into the R & R.

At least, like a diner, a language is always open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Speaking of which–what about those words, breakfastlunch, and dinner?


I’m going to argue that nearly every native English speaker has had this experience. First is the recognition that breakfast is a compound of break and fastSecond is the question issued to a family member or teacher: What is this “fast” one is breaking with a bowl of Cheerios? Third is disappointment with English vowels. The way we say break and fast on their own is nothing like the way they sound in breakfast. Some of us go onto a fourth stage, though later: a fascination with the way that spelling can gives us clues about the stories words have to tell.

The OED first attests breakfast in 1463, around the time when the word booted out Old English’s equally hearty compound, morgenmete, or “morning food.” (Yes, you are looking at a precursor of meat.)

Why did the word enter into English at this time? Perhaps there was a religious influence, with the monastic habit of first eating only after morning mass. This certainly jives with the religious notes of fast, the term ultimately related to its meaning of “firm” or “steadfast,” which also gave rise to its speedier sense.   


Lunch‘s etymology is no quick lunch. It is a shortened form of luncheon, which itself may be an extension of lunch and modeled on words like truncheon and puncheon. (The -eon ending is not a meaningful suffix in its own right.)

Lunch could be from lump, in the way that hump and hunch and bump and bunch are related.

What could be lumpy about lunch? Your sandwich?

At one time, in the late 16th-century, a lunch was a thick slice or piece–a lunch of cheese, ham, or bread. Indeed, around the same time there was the Spanish lonja, which means slice” or “loin.” A hunk of bread or cheese? There is historical evidence for such a lunch, but more so at breakfast time.

Lunch could be influenced by the archaic though still regionally extant nuncheon.  It denoted a “light midday meal” or “slight refreshment” in the 14th-century, joining noon and scench (draught, cup). Johnson defines it “as much food as one’s hand can hold,” thus erroneously rooting it in clutch or clunch, a dialectical word for lump. Seems that meals-on-the-go aren’t so new a phenomenon. This is oddly reassuring. Somehow, though, I don’t think peasants took 15-minutes to shove food in their face while trolling Facebook.


Do you call it supper? Or, in some places in England, Ireland, and New Zealand, tea? Or, if it’s a little early in certain parts of the US, lunch? In my household growing up it was often din-din. Which apparently is attested in 1905. E.M. Forester gets the quotation in the OED. (Check out the Harvard Dialect Survey for the supper-dinner distinction in the US. And enjoy this discussion of the words for mealtimes in English-speaking parts of the world.)

The word dinner illustrates how culture shapes not just what we eat but when. According to Heather Arndt Anderson in Breakfast: A History: “Until relatively recently, lunch was the first meal of the day, but it was called dinner” (p. 5).

Dinner is related to dine, which comes into English in the 13th-century from the Old French dîner, previously disner (eat, have a meal). This is believed to be from the late and vulgar Latin disjejunare, joining dis- (an undoing prefix) and jejunare (to fast). Also the source of French’s déjeuner and English’s archaic disjune . 

Latin has jejunus, meaning “fasting,” “hungry,” and “thin.” English has the now obsolete jejune, signifying the same, though extended to terrestrial and spiritual barrenness or meagerness. Wiktionary traces jejunus farther back, with cognates including Sanskrit’s yájati (he worships, sacrifices) and Ancient Greek’s hágios (sacred, holy). As in, Hagia SophiaNow, jejune is childish, probably because of confusion with juvenis, Latin for “youth,” and French’s subsequent jeune. 

And the jejunum? The second part of the small intestine? The Online Etymology Dictionary explains it best: “So called because it typically is found empty during dissections, perhaps because it would tend to drain in a body laid on its back.”

I think I just lost my lunch. Er, dinner. Er, breakfast.

Supper, often used interchangeably with dinner, particularly in the United States, is from sup, “to eat the evening meal.” The verb is French in origin, super, and is related to soup. Think: bread soaked in broth, which the Online Etymology Dictionary notes was a traditional French laborer’s last meal of the day. Post-classical Latin called this suppa. English has a word for thissop. Supper, sop, soup–all related to sup, a Germanic base (sip, swallow) that may be rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *seue– (to take liquid), with some generous helpings of cognates we will save for leftovers.

Breakfast for Dinner

So, what’s up with the shifting words and times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Class, custom, work, technology. Those kinds of things. You know, culture.

Here’s a taste. If you’re a farmer who wants to make most use of daylight, you’re at your work early and hungry for a big meal in the middle of the day, which would sustain you until your work is done at last light. But consider the impact of the Industrial Revolution–now you’re working long hours in a factory, thus necessitating some kind of lunch in the middle of your shift. You’d probably want some fuel before going in, too, thus making breakfast a smart idea. And electricity would make it possible to eat later in the day, which became fashionable and was emulated by the working classes.

But this is just a small slice–or should I say lunch–of the changing customs of mealtimes. The BBC has done some great work on the subject, if you’re not yet full. And if you really want to dig into it, this food timeline dishes it out.

Who eats what for when gets confusing, so let’s just smash them together. Like  brunch, which originates as English university slang. For this, the OED cites Punch magazine on August 1, 1896:

An excellent portmanteau word…indicating a combined breakfast and lunch. At Oxford, however, two years ago, an important distinction was drawn. The combination meal, when nearer the usual hour, it is ‘brunch,’ and when nearer luncheon, it is ‘blunch.’

I, for one, will pass on that cronut for blunch. But, since hipsters killed brunch, I suppose we might have a need for blunch after all.

self & other

Fast Mash

  • Self is rooted in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *swe-, meaning “separate” or “apart,” whose derivatives range from idiot and seclude to ethics and gossip
  • Other is rooted in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *al-tero-, the base of which is *al-, meaning “beyond.” Derivatives range from allegory and alien to ultimate and else.

I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of small embarrassments that still prickle me from time to time. Most of these involve botching a greeting with a European woman. One kiss, two kisses, three kisses. Slight contact, no contact, gestured contact. I get the variations; I just lack the grace. I lack the social fluidity, always feeling I cause some sort of minor, fleshy collision, leaving behind a residue of saliva and unsophistication.

The same applies to the various hand-slapping and dapping we modern, young, American men often use in meeting and departing. I never know what is expected, and the result is knuckles, awkwardness, and a mumbled, self-deprecating chorus of “my bad.”

When it comes to writing, I shudder to recollect my first go at a college essay. We were assigned one for practice in my junior-year English class, I believe, with Mr. Cahill, may he rest in tweed-patched, Wordsworth-yawping peace. I submitted some overwrought piece about self-discovery through scholarship. The opening sentence included the word selfhood in the context of a painfully extended metaphor about mountaineering the prose of Jonathan Swift. Yuck.

Mr. Cahill passed back the papers soon enough. Scrawled across the top of mine, however, were two words that could sink the heart of any pretentious overachiever: “See me.”

“You might want to…How should I say it? Tone it down.” he said. “Selfhood?”

Wordiness, so often co-morbid with purple prose, can betray too much self-involvement on the part of the writer. So, in the interest of toning things down, instead of talking too much about myself, let’s take off the hood just talk about self.


Self comes directly from Old English, whose many Germanic cognates derive from the Proto-Germanic *selbaz, in turn coming from the Proto-Indo-European *sel-bho-. At the root of this is *swe-, meaning “separate” or “apart.”

The derivatives of this root are many and astounding. Columbia University professor John McWhorter does an incredibly lucid job, in fact, with the origin of self in his introduction to What Language Is, an entertaining and edifying read. It, in part, inspired this post.

A quick note . Why do we leave a dash at the end of roots like *swe-? The dash indicates that the roots took on suffixes that changed the role of the word in an expression, just as, say, Russian or Latin words take on endings. And as McWhorter puts it, Proto-Indo-European was a language “very heavy on suffixes” (10). For example, *swe– could pick up a d and take on –yo to function as an adjective: *swed-yo. As words change, sometimes these endings become stuck onto forms. Other times they fall off altogether. Both happened in the story of *swe-. Much thanks, Professor McWhorter.

Let’s have a taste of the *swe– life in some of Proto-Indo-European’s more prominent daughter languages.


  • Swami (one’s own master)


In Greek, *swe– took to life as idios (from *swed-yo; own, private) and took on a different suffix to form, for example, ethnos (people of one’s own kind).      

  • Idiom, idiot
  • Ethnic, ethos, ethics


In Latin, *swe- evolved into sed and se-, which were prefixed onto all kinds of verbs. Secret joins se– and cernere (to separate; discern uses the same verb). Custom is from com- (together) and suescere (to get used to). Sober fuses se– and ebrius (drunk; yes, think inebriation).  

  • Secret, secure, seduce, seclude, segregate, separate, several
  • Solo, sole, sullen
  • Sober
  • Suicide
  • Accustom, custom
  • Sodality, mansuetude, desuetude


The Germanic family morphed *swe– into *sebjo (blood relation). Gossip, originally godsibb, blends god and sibb (relative), and subsequently underwent considerable semantic development. Swain started out as “a young man attendant on a knight” and was suffixed to form boatswain and coxswain.

  • Sibling
  • Gossip
  • Swain

And, oh, you know how all the cool kids are sporting rolled-up jeans these days? They are just showing some selvage, or the edge of woven material that has been finished to prevent unraveling. Sartorially, it’s “in.” Etymologically, it’s “self-edge.”

GQ approves this selvage. Image courtesy of GQ.


As I like to pick apart not just individual words but also word themes, if you will, the etymology of self begs the question:  What about other?

Other had another life in its Old English form oþer. (The symbol <þ> is the letter thorn, which was used alongside eth, <ð>, to spell th sounds). It could function as an adjective, “the second,” (and in some cases “next”) as well as as a pronoun for “one of the two.” Other still serves as an adjective today, but not in the sense of “the second.” Scandinavian languages, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, though, have retained this sense.

Like selfother is not alone, with its many Germanic cognates pointing back to the Proto-Germanic *antharaz, itself from the Proto-Indo-European *an-tero-. This root is a variant of *al-tero-, which is where things get quite interesting.

The second part of this root, *tero-, was a suffix to form comparative adjectives. Think: bigger, better, funner. And the first part, *al-, is believed to have meant “beyond.” Here’s some of the beyond of this “beyond”:


  • Allegory
  • Allophone, allomorph, allele


  • Alter, altruism, altercate
  • Ultra, ultimate
  • Alien, alias, alibi


  • Else

And oh, did you ever find it strange that the French refer to Germany as Allemagne or the Spanish as Alemania? (Well, as strange as anything else in the mess of language.) Anyways, I always have. It turns out there is speculation that the root of the eponym might mean “foreign men,” drawing from, what else, *al-.

Self is Other

There is you and then there is everybody else. Right? But on the etymological level, in some sense self and other blur. The self is that which is “separate from” or “apart from” others, and the other is that which is “beyond” the self. Both exist on a plane of difference and relativity, mutually defined by apartness, a beyond-ness—membranes bounded but porous, an intersubjective bridge. And, as the French poet Rimbaud more lyrically formulated it, “Je est un autre.” I is an other.